Over on Twitter, Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah wrote a very interesting thread on Wuxia (Chinese heroes) and the meaning of this genre. He kindly gave me permission to quote it in full here since that’s much easier to read than a Twitter thread if you’re not used to Twitter.
Among the hottest fiction trends today, and the genre I’m working on next. I’ve been looking into the genre for years, but everywhere I looked I found too many power fantasies, too few actual wuxia. It shows a lack of understanding of the genre. Wuxia should be the stuff of legends. Highly-skilled warriors in a milieu of danger and respect. Adventure in exotic realms. A world where you can earn your place with your sword. But beyond that, wuxia has one more element: Ethics.
It’s right there in the name. Wuxia is commonly translated as ‘martial hero’ into English. The meaning of ‘hero’ is well-known. ‘Martial’ has a neutral connotation. It means the ways of war. The meaning of wuxia seems obvious: a hero who uses martial arts. But this is not what wuxia means in Chinese. Chinese is a logographic language. Every ‘word’ is a written character that carries certain meanings. Every character in turn is made up of radicals. Radicals are smaller characters that convey pronunciation, and most importantly, MEANING. Keep this in mind.
Wuxia is a transliteration of 武侠. 武 carries the meanings of ‘martial, weapons, military’. 侠 means ‘chivalry, gallantry, hero’. But this is in English. In Chinese it carries a much, much deeper meaning. 武 is composed of two major radicals. 止: Stop 戈: A dagger-axe, an ancient Chinese weapon. (When used as a radical, the word loses a stroke.) Therefore, the true meaning of 武 is: to stop the dagger-axe. The English ‘martial’ has a neutral connotation. 武 has an innately noble purpose: to stop the dagger-axe, to defend and protect.
Morality is hard-coded into Chinese martial arts. The Chinese took it very, very seriously. Some Chinese martial arts masters worked as police officers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Others were civilians, but they assisted the police in arresting outlaws. Others ‘took back the art’ by defeating (and crippling or killing) bandits who had trained in martial arts.
侠 is an interesting case. This is the simplified version of an older word: 俠. 侠 has two radicals: 人: man 夹: squeeze, pinch, wedge, carry under your arm This implies that 侠 is ‘a man who wedges’ or ‘a man who carries’. 夾 from 俠 can be interpreted in two interesting ways. The ‘official’ interpretation I’ve seen is of two smaller men lifting up a larger man. My other, artistic interpretation is a large man wedging himself between two others. With this artistic interpretation, if we look at 俠 again, we see this: A man who places himself in between a tall man (on the left) and two smaller men (behind him). A big man protecting two smaller men with his body. What is the deeper meaning of 侠? A man who lifts up and supports other people. This is how the Chinese viewed chivalry and gallantry. Or, if you look at it artistically: A man who shields the innocent with his body.
Put these characters together and we get the meaning of the true meaning of 武侠: A man who stops the dagger-axe and supports others. Martial skill is thus used to protect the innocent, NOT to puff up your ego. To be a hero is to help others, NOT to merely be strong. Many stories tagged as ‘wuxia’ miss that. Without this element of ethics, of a hero willing to shield others from the dagger-axe with his own body, there is no wuxia. Today, there are ‘dark wuxia’ stories where the MC is a VILLAIN, which defeats the genre altogether!
With this in mind, let’s examine Xianxia. Xianxia is the transliteration of 仙侠. 侠 is known by now. But what about 仙? English says it means ‘immortal, fairy, sylph’. But that’s not quite what it means. 仙 has two radicals: 人: Man 山: Mountain A 仙, an immortal, is thus a man who goes up to the mountains. But why? Isolated in the mountains, free from the concerns of the mortal world, a man can tap into the abundant qi of nature. Through cultivation, a Daoist becomes an immortal. Through cultivation, a Buddhist gains enlightenment. They do not gain superpowers.
More precisely, these powers are NOT the point of cultivation. They serve as way markers. Confirmation that you are on the right path. And, if needed, skills TO HELP OTHERS. To pursue powers at the expense of your own development is to lose the Way and fall into delusion. Not only that, the archetypal xian is a hermit. He goes up the mountain AND STAYS THERE. Cultivation is a long, difficult, tedious process. He needs to be free of worldly distractions. Why would he climb down the mountain?
The answer, for this genre, is 侠. What is the deep meaning of xianxia? A man who goes up the mountain to cultivate himself and gains powers along the way, then climbs down the mountain to use his skills to help others. Modern-day xianxia show ‘heroes’ gaining power, beating up bad guys, attracting a girl, gaining more power, ad infinitum. This is a power fantasy, with optional harem elements. The purpose of power is not MOAR power. It is to be used to help others – or not at all. Without this moral element, a wuxia / xianxia story is not wuxia / xianxia. It is a mere power fantasy. But it is the dominant trope today. A mere aesthetic to dress up a hollow fantasy, no more. A shadow of the true meaning of the genre.
Only one thing left to do: Overturn the heavens and the earth. SAGA OF THE SWORDBREAKER, coming 2021 / 2022.
I have a small comment of my own to add, which is that you see the sort of perversion of a genre which Benjamin has described almost anywhere in which you see vivid world-building, no more than ten to twenty years later. It will inevitably come about when there are people who grew up with the world-building but who reject the heroism in it for the various reasons that people reject heroism. (Mostly it’s because they’re bad people and contemplating great virtue makes them feel bad about their vices, rather than encouraging them to increase their virtues, but that’s a topic onto itself.) These people, having spent so much time in such worlds in their imagination, long to tell their own stories in the same setting, though not at all to tell the same sorts of stories.
(This is a reason, by the way, that you will tend to see a golden age in which a type of new fiction has some particular excellence at the beginning, but then the genre becomes a swamp in which it is still possible to find diamonds. At first, people enter the genre to tell the sorts of stories this new fiction lets them tell especially well. Later, people who are used to the genre it want to tell all sorts of stories that have a superficial resemblance to the originals, and most of them are bad because they do not fit. The diamonds are those stories telling stories which do actually fit the genre.)